Monday, December 14, 2009

Expectant Believers: Unexpected Companions

Scripture Readings: Romans 15:1-13; Matthew 1:1-6

A wealthy woman was interviewing a prospective servant, and she asked, “Can you serve company?” The applicant said, “Yes ma’am. I can serve them both ways.” The woman was puzzled and she asked, “What do you mean, both ways.” “Ma’am, I can serve them so they’ll come again, or so they’ll stay away.” (From “My Little Salesman Truck Catalog” quoted in “Parables, Etc”, June ’88)

When my dad was a kid, his family had a guest room in the attic. It was a big, full, old fashioned attic, and (to all appearances) it was a nice enough room: but, just as you would expect in the attic of an old house, it was an oven in the summer and an ice box in the winter.

Sometimes, especially because those were depression years, they would have relatives who would want to come and stay for some time. If these were relatives that they really liked, they would make room for them in their own bedrooms on the second floor. If they were relatives that they didn’t like so well, they put them up in the guest room.

Both of the scriptures readings for this sermon teach us about the hospitality of God, and the truth is that Jesus is the hospitality of God. And the fact of the truth is that having Jesus makes us agents and representatives of the hospitality of God. And by “us” I mean both “us” as individuals, and “us” as a congregation.

You wouldn’t think that a genealogy would be about hospitality. Some people use their genealogy as a way of being inhospitable; as a way of setting themselves apart and above other people. The people of Jesus’ day did that, and anyone who traced their genealogy back to the great King David could be expected to use it to show others how noble and pure blooded they were.

But, even though Matthew gave Jesus’ genealogy going back to King David, and further back to Abraham, he put some things into that list of names that made it into the right kind of genealogy that could properly belong in a gospel. Matthew deliberately made some additions that sabotaged Jesus’ genealogy in order to make a point for the gospel.

Gospel means good news. And, here, the good news of the gospel is about the hospitality of God.

God takes us to himself, draws us to himself, as if he were embracing us. God takes us to himself even though we are really no better than strangers. He takes us to himself even though, sometimes, we are no better than enemies. God takes us to himself as if we were ruined, and obnoxious, and freeloading relatives; because that is what we really are. We are his estranged children: rebels and runaways.

We don’t even know how to live at home. We don’t have the skills to fit in. But God comes down in Jesus. And, down here, he does something to us that changes us. God becomes that baby in the manger; that carpenter on the roof; that wanderer on the highway; that convict on the cross; that unexpected conqueror of death. God has become all of that for us in order to draw us to himself and make us welcome.

Each of our own personal genealogies is a long line of generations of runaways from home, who have had (in their own minds) no proper idea of what the home where we belong is really like. Our idea of God’s home is all about clouds, and crowns, and thrones, and harps, and wings. We have no idea what makes God tick, or what being at home with him is like, until we really see God in Jesus.

The people who love genealogies often love glory and purity. But Matthew sabotaged Jesus’ genealogy to make it about grace. Genealogies are supposed to be lists of ancestors who make you look good. Jesus is the child who turns his genealogy upside down. The fact that he is in the family is what makes his motley crew, his rogue’s gallery, of ancestors look good.

Other relatives in Jesus’ family would look at their list of names and see (in their minds eye) portraits of distinguished patriarchs and royalty. But they could only succeed in doing that if they cherished a selective memory, a defective memory, of those ancestors.

The Bible is the most honest book in the world. It shows the truth that all those distinguished ancestors were sinners, even the best of them. “Sinner” means someone who misses the mark, who falls short, or aims too wide, or goes too far. An honest son or daughter of David’s genealogy would know this.

How did Matthew really sabotage the genealogy of Jesus and make it a history of grace? He did this by including women, but certain women in particular: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (the wife of Uriah the Hittite).

Women, in general, were second class citizens. Putting their names in an official genealogy was simply not done. The people of Jesus’ time and place simply neglected to think that women were included in the great things that God does. They were just not ordinarily the people through whom you would expect to see God work.

The truth is that there are people through whom you do not expect God to work. But the genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew tells us that there are no such people. Every person is someone through whom God can be expected to work. To put these four women in the genealogy means that you can expect the unexpected, and the unlikely, from people. You can expect the most unpromising people to belong in very same fellowship as you do, because the grace of God can work just as well for them as it can for you.

Each of these four women is worth studying as an example of the grace of God. Tamar was a foreign girl (probably, possibly, a Canaanite). Her claim to fame is that she was victimized by the selfishness of the family she had married into: the family of Israel. Her devotion to what was right and what was just put the tribe of Israel to shame. (Genesis 38:1-26)

Rahab was a Canaanite woman who was probably the priestess of a fertility goddess. The Old Testament calls her a prostitute because that is what her ministry, as a pagan priestess, looked like to the Israelites, and would look like to us. But Rahab was converted. She changed. She became a believer in the Lord; and she became part of the people of Israel and an ancestor of Jesus. (Joshua 2:1-11; 6:22-25)

Ruth was a humble young woman of the people of Moab. She had nothing against her but the fact that she was a pagan outsider, and a stranger to the ways of God’s people. And, in spite of the odds, and in spite of those who tried to discourage her (like her own mother-in-law, in Ruth 1:8-18), she came inside God’s family by faith.

The wife of Uriah the Hittite was probably a Hittite woman too. But King David lusted after her, and had an affair with her, and had her husband killed so that he could marry her. She became living proof that one of the greatest of God’s people had done things that he could be thoroughly ashamed of. The greatest of God’s people was capable of doing things that would make others ashamed of him. (2 Samuel 11:1-12:10)

The presence of Tamar and Bathsheba sabotage the genealogy of Jesus, because they demonstrate that the holy people are not holy, in and of themselves. God’s people are sinners, and sometimes those who are on the outside of God’s people put God’s own people to shame.

The outsiders are the people who are wronged. It is the insiders, the holy people, who do the wronging.

If God’s people would only have the humility to know that they are often the one’s who deserve to be blamed, then they would have hope. Even now, if God’s people will recognize that they are sinners, who need to repent and receive new life from God, then lessons like Jesus’ genealogy will be a word of grace to them.

We know absolutely nothing about the grace of God until we know how much we need that grace. And we can never talk about the grace of God to others unless we know how much we need that grace. And we can never talk about the grace of God to others unless we allow God to change our lives by nourishing us with that grace.

And that is what Paul meant when he wrote, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (Romans 15:7) Those who truly know the grace of God that has been given to us in Jesus can give that grace to others.
But more than that is true. Those who know the grace of God in Jesus are obliged to give that grace to others. Jesus accepted us to the praise of God. If we don’t accept others, then it is not to the praise of God. So you see it is pretty important, isn’t it?

“Accept one another.” Accept is a weak word to translate what Paul wrote in Greek. “Receive” would be a better word. “Welcome” would be even better yet. The Greek word, here, means something like “take to yourself” or “draw to yourself”.

The word “accept” can be such a weak, cold word. You can say: “I can accept them, but I don’t have to like them.” It’s true that, Biblically speaking, you don’t have to like other people; but, Biblically speaking, you do have to love them.
You have to receive them. You have to welcome them. You have to draw them to yourself. This is what God does with you in Christ. This is how we become the hands, and feet, and voices of Jesus, the hospitality of God.

The women who sabotaged Jesus’ genealogy were strangers and outsiders. They didn’t know the ways of God’s people. They didn’t have the same kind of history. They didn’t know the customs, or the vocabulary. They didn’t always know how to act or how to talk. But, by the grace of God, whether they were accepted or not, they belonged to God’s people. Perhaps they were never fully accepted in their life times, but they are accepted and welcomed in the story of Jesus.

People who haven’t been raised in the church have not learned our special language and our special ways. And we will seem as strange to them as they seem to us. They may even be able to see through some of our talk and some of our ways and see that there is a good amount of foolishness in us. They may see that we fret about the little things and that we are blind to the really important things. The only way to overcome this is by a disciplined commitment to the practice of welcome.

The acceptance and welcome of others in Jesus name is a holy discipline. You cannot keep the truth of grace in your heart unless you give grace. You cannot grow in your knowledge of grace unless you give grace. And being a Christian, being in Christ, is all about grace; from first to last.

It is not easy. It does not come naturally. It can only come supernaturally. This is what Paul understood, and what his words teach us, when he wrote, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves, as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:5) Because we have no endurance in ourselves, it is our nature to raise barriers and create obstacles for others. It is the nature of Jesus and his Holy Spirit to sabotage those barriers, and tear at them until they come down.

It takes endurance and encouragement from God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and through intense prayer, to accept and welcome others; which is nothing more than knowing that you and those outsiders really represent only one single thing; one great work of God in Christ.

That is where the spirit of unity comes from. This again is the hospitality that God gives us in Jesus.

This unity is the message of the genealogy of Jesus. It is not the case that some of us are the best, and some of us are the worst. We all have some of the best and the worst inside us. What gives us real meaning, in all our imperfection, is Jesus: just as he gave meaning to all those ancestors who went before him; all that motley crew, who were so mixed up with the best and the worst fighting inside their hearts.

Sooner or later each one of us will wonder what our life means. The meaning of our life is that we can know that our lives are taken up into the grace, and wisdom, and love of God in Jesus.

This is the message of Christmas. He took upon himself our human life, so that he could share his life with us and welcome us, and draw us to himself, and take us to himself: the ultimate hospitality.

This is the message of the Lord’s Table. Jesus is our host. The baby of Bethlehem is part of his gift to make us welcome. All that a baby asks for is our love and our embrace. The love this baby (who will grow up to die for us) gives us is the greatest nourishment and strength in the world. He gives us himself.

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